As the minutes ticked down to the final vote that gave gay and lesbian New Yorkers equal marriage rights on Friday night, my thoughts turned to In & Out. The 1997 movie about Howard Brackett (Kevin Klein), an Indiana English teacher who finds himself at the center of a national media frenzy after a former student says he’s gay during an Oscar telecast on the eve of his wedding may have been the first time I saw an image of two men looking like they were about to exchange vows. And though the movie’s been overtaken by a tide of social and political change, it remains a surprisingly humane and funny film.
Much of the movie’s cultural resonance comes from the fact that it’s a great satire on popular culture that still works today. As the Oscar ceremony where it all goes down commences, viewers in Indiana mull over their ballots, voting for “something about Polish mineworkers and their struggle to be free,” and Glenn Close reads off the nominations for Best Actor, including “Paul Newman for Coot, Clint Eastwood for Codger, Michael Douglas for Primary Urges, and Steven Seagal for Snowball in Hell.” To Serve and Protect, the movie that earns Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) his Academy Award, is a pitch-perfect joke on both Forrest Gump and Philadelphia, which preceded it, and the prestigious gay movies like Brokeback Mountain and Milk that would follow in the next decade. The scene in the fake movie where Dillon’s obvious dolt character asks if a fellow soldier loves him “You mean as a friend?…You mean as a brother?…As a cousin?…You mean as a penpal?” alone is worth the price of admission. And seeing supermodel Shalom Harlow, as Drake’s ditzy model girlfriend, complain that she can’t go to Indiana because “I have to shower and vomit” is a nicely self-aware stab at the heroin chic look then at its height.There is one ongoing theme in the movie that looks tremendously dated, though. In the pre-metrosexual era, In & Out treats cultural preferences and gendered behaviors as if they’re an infallible predictor of sexual orientation — even if the person who possesses them hasn’t come to terms with their own identity yet. In today’s world, it’s annoying to have one of Howard’s students tell him that it was obvious people would think he was gay because, “You’re an English teacher. And all this poetry, and odes, and bonnets…And you’re kinda prissy. Plus you got the drama club. And you ride that bicycle. And you’ve been engaged to Miss Montgomery for like three years,” and to be proven absolutely right. The Barbara Streisand preference may have been a new joke to mainstream straight audiences in 1997, but it is achingly stale today, as is the idea that riding a bike or wearing a bowtie make you gay — now, they just make you a hipster.
It’s clear that the show’s characters know fairly little about gay people in other ways. As Howard’s father says after his son comes out, “Are you gonna have an operation? Will you be going into show business?…I’m making an effort here. I’m a farmer.” An excuse like that probably wouldn’t fly today. And it’s hard to imagine in the age of Glee that most high school students don’t have at least a little more basic information about gay people than Howard’s students do. But even though their knowledge levels are fairly low, the fundamental message of the movie is that being around gay people brings out a town’s decency. After Howard comes out at his own wedding, it’s the oldest people in the room who affirm his decision, telling his mother “You fed ’em the same, you raised ’em the same, and you loved ’em the same. And one of them is gay,” and “Howard is just being honest, clearing the air before he made a real mess.” I’ve always been curious about whether Howard’s student Zack, the one he mentors most closely, and who is the first to stand at graduation and declare himself gay in solidarity with Howard, is supposed to actually be gay, or just a cutting-edge ally. But it’s really the fact that the whole town rises after him to stand with Howard that’s important.
And it’s funny to see where equal marriage rights were in the constellation of issues at the time the movie was made. The questions the news reporters ask Howard when they show up in Greenleaf are clearly parodic-but-wincing-at-the-recent-past, whether they’re asking “Do you know Ellen?” or “Should gays be allowed to handle fresh produce?” But marriage is in there, when Howard tells Peter (the cute gay news anchor played by Tom Selleck) “I have no thoughts on gay marriage. I did not see The Birdcage. And I’m trying to finish my dinner.” The movie doesn’t refer to equal marriage rights explicitly again, and it sort of undoes the kiss between Howard and Peter by turning it into a bit of physical comedy. But there’s something radical in the momentary inference towards the end of the movie that Howard and Peter are headed to the altar, as they stand in a church checking each other’s bow ties. It turns out they aren’t headed there yet, but the movie’s insistence that they could be, four years before before Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders filed Goodridge v. Department of Health in Massachusetts, was a canny reading of what the future held, maybe cannier than the movie even knew.